When I first got into Asian film, in a cinephile way, I quickly realized that the first few books I read never mentioned Korea and I hadn't really seen or heard much about Korean films except for some cult mags that mentioned the Young-gu series. It seemed especially odd considering, like Hong Kong and Japan, there was a strong English speaking presence in Korea following the war, so why weren't servicemen coming back with tales of Korean cinema? Eventually, I stumbled upon better material and found out why.
To briefly explain- Japan occupied Korea in the early days of cinema and didn't exactly nourish film making outside propaganda-leaning films. Things loosened up after WW2, but then, of course, Korea quickly had its own war and there was barely means to feed people let alone make films. Again, following that divisive war, cinema started to get some ground again in South Korea, but eventual political pressure putting reigns on importing films, homegrown budgets, film education, content, etc. just fed into an overall culture that wasn't very interested in cinema. Sure, some film makers managed to soldier on during those decades, but it really wasn't until the late 80's when the government began to nourish local talent and allow importing of international cinema did we see the explosion of Korean cinema as the artistic and commercial force that exists today.
One of the classic works of Korean cinema that I did see frequently mentioned was 1960's Stray Bullet, though I recall it always being labeled Aimless Bullet. Considering how many films- the majority, actually- from the Golden and Silver age of Korean cinema have been lost, it was a pleasure to find out that director Yoo Hyun-mok's grim post-war drama is in tact and lives up to the hype.
The story basically revolves around one family and two brothers. There is the elder, worn down salaryman Chul Ho and the younger, disillusioned former soldier Yong Ho. They live in a small apartment where tension is present from day to day, morning til night, a family fragmented by insufficient funds and a general feeling of hopelessness in country struggling to put itself together and define its future.
Chul Ho lives on autopilot. He drudges to his job every day and returns home to a son who resents him because the son has to work instead of go to school to help the family make ends meet, a young daughter who doesn't understand why her shoes must be tattered, a pregnant wife who just seems to do nothing but look sullen and stoke a fire (the films weakest characterization), a sister who whores herself out to US serviceman, and a dementia ridden mother who just lays in bed eerily moaning the phrase, "Lets get out of here." And to top it all off, he's got a toothache that he doesn't bother getting treated because money is so tight.
The other brother, Yong Ho, finds himself at a loss to find a place in a society that forced him to become a soldier and now doesn't want him because that is all he knows. He hangs out with his fellow war buddies, most of them similarly embittered, crippled, and resentful of the government that used them and has cast them aside. The crux of his story is what really drives the film and is the impetus for the finale. He reunites with a nurse that he fell for during the war. That possible love and an offer for an acting job gives him some hope, but a sudden double dose of tragedy sends him into a pitfall that leads him down path to crime. Tragedy is catching, as Chul Ho also finds himself, by films end, past a breaking point that he has long teetered upon.
What is really interesting is how much Stray Bullet echoes the post WW2 cinema from Italy and Japan in the late 40's and early 50's. And, I'm actually inclined to think that it wasn't necessarily anything like the Neo Realist movement having an influence. I think it was just the aftermath of war- period- creating that kind of dispossessed atmosphere. While Stray Bullet handles its metaphors and commentary with a heavy and obvious hand (like, for instance, Chul Ho's not treating his toothache out of some martyr suffering for his family is directly called out by his brother, or Yong Ho losing himself in a crowd of protesters during his criminal getaway), I did feel the hopelessness was genuine and spawned from a culture trying desperately to redefine itself.
The DVD: Cinema Epoch.
Fullscreen, standard. As expected, the print is not in the greatest shape. It does show signs of wear and tear and age, though not to a terrible degree, just the occasional low light scene and some flecks and specks dirtying things up. The most severe missive in the tech department is some posterization that is especially noticeable in scenes with high contrast lighting schemes.
Mono, Korean with burned-in English subs, plus new subtitle track. Not much in term of sound. Weak track but only because of the era and budget. Minor distortions and that typical mono hollowness.
In the subtitle front, the print has burned-in subs which are, for the most part, legible and clear but sloppily translated. The DVD gives you the option of displaying a new sub translation which, of course, is displayed on top of the old subs making for a less than pleasurable aesthetic. Personally, I would have preferred a new sub with some close-captioned black borders so the on print subs were covered up a little more. Still, the effort alone was a nice option.
Nothin', which is a shame since there was a Korean edition of the film released a while back that did contain some interview footage.
Very interesting film and classic cinema/Asian cinema fans would do well to check it out. Stray Bullet may not be up to the tech or storytelling level of Umberto D, The Bicycle Thief, Black Rain, or Fires on the Plain but it is still very poignant and a solid work of old school, bleak melodrama. The disc is basic and the presentation (understanably) rough, so casual fans may want to opt for a rental, whereas those with a more hardcore interest will want to pick it up.